Counselor firing in abuse case leaves many wondering

By Michael Davis

News that a counselor was fired for not reporting signs of abuse of a girl that was later found beaten to death left many wondering what went wrong.

Counselor Patricia White was fired Tuesday following an all-day hearing in front of the Henry County Board of Education where two teachers from her school testified that they gave White written and oral reports that 11-year-old Joella Reaves may have been abused, but child-welfare officials were never notified.

Because of her position as a counselor at Eagle's Landing Middle School where Reaves was a sixth-grader, White was designated to receive reports of suspected abuse and mandated by Georgia law to report it to the Department of Family and Children's Services.

"Maybe there needs to be more than one designee – a system of checks and balances so it doesn't slip through the cracks," said Stockbridge resident Matthew Lewis, father of two children in a Henry County elementary school.

"Any time that an adult suspects that a child is being abused, they should notify authorities," he added. But, he conceded, because of "frivolous lawsuits," some might be afraid to get involved without solid evidence.

But the attorney for Henry County School Superintendent Dr. Jack Parish, said according to the law, White needed nothing more than a report given to her by a teacher who suspected abuse. The school board voted unanimously to fire her for not acting on those reports.

Also testifying at the hearing, some of White's colleagues said that had they received the reports she did, they would've reported it to DFCS but after conducting their own investigation.

The superintendent's attorney however pointed out that under the law, they do not have the authority to investigate reports of suspected abuse.

"It was obviously a tragic thing," said Robin Jones, coordinator for Prevent Child Abuse Henry's First Steps Program. "We need to do a better job of educating teachers and counselors on what to look for and how and when to report," she said.

Jones said that awareness of child abuse is one of the best ways to prevent it. "We also need to make children more aware and not afraid to say something," she said.

Mary Ann Rosser, a teacher who filed a written report of suspected abuse with White on Sept. 12, said that when she questioned Joella about the bruising she saw, the girl told her two different stories of how it happened.

"It kind of alarmed me that her story kept changing back and forth," Rosser said.

Terry Lynn Wilson, another counselor at ELMS, testified Tuesday that until early December, three to four cases per month of suspected abuse were reported to DFCS. She said since that time, the number is probably higher. Asked by the board where she thought the failure might have occurred, if she believed there was a failure to report, she said, "I don't know if I am the judge of that."

Joella's body was found Dec. 1 in the upstairs bedroom of her Carriage Lake Drive home.

Police responding to a "trouble unknown" call found her father in the upstairs hallway near the bedroom yelling, "help her," sobbing and visibly shaken.

He and his wife, Joella's stepmother, Charlott Reaves were arrested on charges of murder and cruelty to children.

According to copies of their arrest warrants, Joella was tied up in the garage in the home and over several days the week of Thanksgiving, beaten with a paddle and umbrella.

Phyllis Shrader, director of Henry County DFCS, said that since the incident occurred, the department has received a higher than average number of referrals from Henry County schools though she couldn't immediately provide statistics.

"Any time that they have reason to believe (abuse is occurring), they are mandated to report and they should report," she said.

Joella was in the custody of an aunt, Janis Carter, in Maryland before moving to Georgia to be with her father during the summer. Her natural mother, Tanya Carter was killed in a car accident in 1995.

Since Joella's death, her aunt has expressed sorrow and anger over the child's death.

"I have a lot of pain and hurt inside me," she said. "She didn't have to die the way she did."